In the mid-aughts, no actor seemed like a surer bet for a long A-list run than Viggo Mortensen. He had become a movie star by playing the tall, dark, and handsome hero of one of the most successful CGI-laden franchises of all time, Lord of the Rings. He followed that turn with leading roles in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises that established Mortensen as a kind of contemporary De Niro, an all-in performer equally capable of telegraphing emotional vulnerability and exploding into bloody action. Mortensen was 49 when he earned a Best Actor nomination for Eastern Promises. After grinding it out for two decades in Hollywood, his career was now truly his own.
Mortensen was always going to be a different kind of movie star — a Danish American citizen of the world who owns a boutique art-book publishing house, plays music with Buckethead, and is a fiercely loyal fan of sports teams on three different continents. But what Mortensen did with his hard-won Hollywood prestige was unexpected even for someone with such protean ambitions. He didn’t pull a Dave Chappelle; not exactly. Mortensen just appeared in movies, many of them excellent, that almost no one saw. Since the release of Eastern Promises in 2007, Mortensen has starred in seven films — among them an Argentine mistaken-identity thriller, an immediately forgotten Patricia Highsmith adaption with Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst, and a British-German coproduction about the rise of Nazism that made $27,000 in the United States. His most commercial film during this period, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, grossed $8 million at the domestic box office. When a rumor broke that Mortensen was in talks to star in Quentin Tarantino’s next film, The Hateful Eight, it seemed fitting of Viggo’s obscure era that the reports amounted to naught.
Mortensen returns to theaters this Friday with Jauja, an Argentine film in which he stars as a 19th-century Danish military officer roaming through Patagonia. (He also produced it.) The film, directed by Lisandro Alonso, is in many ways classic Viggo: a spare, gorgeously shot study of a man who is trying to escape his violent past. But it’s also wilder and more experimental than Mortensen’s most familiar work; beginning like a version of The Searchers as written by Samuel Beckett, it drifts into terrain that has more in common with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
I spoke with Mortensen last week about Jauja, Champions League soccer, and why he has seemingly spurned Hollywood.
You’re someone who’s taken on a lot of different projects, whether it’s collaborating with Buckethead or making your own books or starring in foreign-language films. Why did you decide to make Jauja?
A friend of mine, Fabián Casas, is the coscreenwriter. He’s a poet from Argentina and we happen to like the same soccer team [Buenos Aires club San Lorenzo de Almagro]. I spent the first decade of my life in Argentina, and that’s the team I grew up watching. Anyway, one day Fabian said to me, “Do you know Lisandro Alonso? We’re writing a script together.” I liked Lisandro’s movies. They’re sort of reminiscent of Sokurov or Tarkovsky. There’s a particular rhythm and an attention to landscape, and he plays with the idea of linear time. So I met Lisandro, and he described in general terms what he wanted to do: 19th-century story, a Danish military guy goes with his adolescent daughter to Argentina, she runs away, and he goes out into the desert looking for her. It sounded like a great idea — a traditional Western adventure story.
And it’s sort of the ultimate Viggo Mortensen traditional Western adventure story because it’s an Argentine movie about a Dane.
And most of the dialogue is in Danish. So there was a lot of work before we shot it just to make sure the [Spanish-language script] was translated correctly into Danish and that it was right for the period when we were speaking. There were all kinds of elements. But basically the adventure aspect of it was the thing I most liked.
The main character, Gunnar Dinesen, is similar to a lot of the men you’ve played. He’s a conflicted, reluctant hero who is eventually driven to violence. Are you consciously drawn to men like that?
I don’t know if I am consciously, but you’re right, there are a lot of characters that I play that have something in their past that comes out.
Denmark fought two wars in the [mid]-19th century, and most of the soldiers were farmers, guys from the country who were not inherently violent. The medal that [Gunnar] wears on his chest was a medal I found at an antique dealer in Copenhagen. It shows the two kings of Denmark during the war in 1848 and the war in 1864. It indicates that he fought in both those wars, and anybody who did that and survived was not unfamiliar with the horror of hand-to-hand combat and violence and horrible things. The character that I play in a French movie that’s coming out soon in the United States, Far From Men, is a schoolteacher, but he is also a veteran of World War II. He turns out to be another person who is not unfamiliar with [violence].
There’s a certain trajectory for an international film actor that I think we’re all familiar with. You start out in your country and make a few movies that become critical and audience hits. Then some high-profile American director brings you to Hollywood, and you make a prestige project and maybe get nominated for an Oscar. Then you sell out and play a Bond villain or you anchor a big-budget franchise or something like that. Your trajectory over the past 14 years from Lord of the Rings to Jauja has been exactly that — but completely in reverse.
[Chuckles.] It’s not intentional! People think, Oh, you’ve obviously turned your back on it. But I haven’t turned my back on anything. I’m just doing stories I like. I realize there’s a risk. Unless you’re in one of those big movies, you’re not going to be remembered by the large part of the moviegoing audience that goes to multiplexes all over the world. That’s just the way it works. Most actors try to do at least one of those big things a year, no matter what, and when you’re trying to balance things that way, you’re probably going to abandon lots of little movies. It happens all the time, and it’s understandable. Say you’ve taken on a small project. You had a start date, but it’s been moved back and moved back — because that’s what happens — and then suddenly a green-lit studio movie comes along. It’s going to pay you well. It’s going to be made. It’s going to be released. It’s going to be promoted well. And it’s tempting to say to the people [from the small movie], “I gotta go do this other thing.” But I’m kind of stubborn. It takes me a while to commit to something, but once I see that it’s something I want to do, I stay with it until the end. I’ve been promoting Jauja now since last May, and I won’t finish until this May, and I’ve lost out on some opportunities over that period. It wasn’t because I said, “No, I just want to do these strange, small movies.” It’s just the way it’s worked out. I’m sure my agents—
Ha! I was just thinking the same thing. They probably thought you were a cash cow after Lord of the Rings, and since Eastern Promises, you haven’t had a movie that’s grossed more than $10 million.
Yeah, careerwise, just on a business level, it’s probably not advisable to do things the way I’ve done them the past few years. But I’ve learned a lot and I’ve worked with a lot of talented people and, most importantly, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to see these movies 20 years from now. There are a lot of movies where you can make a lot of money and maybe even win awards that you probably wouldn’t want to see next year.
There was a rumor that you were talking with Quentin Tarantino about appearing in his next film, The Hateful Eight. Is there any truth to that?
Yeah, we did meet. And that was an example of what I was talking about with small movies. All of last fall, I traveled nonstop. I was on a plane every two days to promote Jauja and Far From Men. I knew as a producer and an actor that I needed to do that for those movies to have a chance to be seen. [Tarantino] wanted to start shooting at the end of the year and do rehearsals before that, and I just couldn’t do that schedulewise. That’s the only reason [I passed]. It would have been really, really fun to work with him. I think he’s really smart and funny. I’d never sat down and talked to him that much, although I did audition for Reservoir Dogs, which he remembered.
Which part did you audition for?
Mister … I don’t know which one it was. It was one of them. I might have auditioned for two. I had fun. I did one take where I made the character Hispanic. I remember it was in this tiny office on the Fox lot, I think, and I read with Harvey Keitel. I wish [The Hateful Eight] would have worked out, but that’s what I’m talking about: You either see these films through to the end or you don’t.
So you’re not turning your back on Hollywood necessarily, but are you deliberately pursuing foreign films, as someone who speaks Danish, Spanish, and French and has family and friends all over the world?
I would never make an Argentine movie or Danish movie or Chinese movie or what have you just for the whim of it, just so I could say, “Oh, I’ve made a Chinese movie or a Bollywood movie.” It has to be a story I want to see. It’s that simple. For Far From Men, the producer happened to have seen me on YouTube speaking French to introduce Guy Lafleur at the centennial for the Montreal Canadiens. And the producer said, “Look, I’m producing an adaptation of an Albert Camus story, could you do a whole movie in French?” And I said, “Well, I can try, but why don’t you send me the story and see if I like it?” And I loved it. I wasn’t looking to do something in French or Arabic.
You might not be looking to do films in foreign languages, but you seem to do a lot of films with fans of the teams you root for.
Well, Fabián Casas is a San Lorenzo fan. In fact, we write a blog together where we talk about soccer and movies and philosophy and psychology and all sorts of weird things. It’s all in Spanish, but people have translated some of it into English — and even Japanese, apparently. But Lisandro [Alonso] actually doesn’t give a shit about soccer even though he plays really well. He was sent to try out for River Plate as a junior player. He’s the kind of guy who will dribble past several guys and then stop and sort of admire what he’s just done. And [Ana Piterbarg], the director of the first Argentine movie I was in, she’s a big Boca Juniors fan.
Is there a connection between Viggo Mortensen the rabid San Lorenzo, Montreal Canadiens, New York Giants, and New York Mets fan, and Viggo Mortensen the actor, composer, photographer, poet?
I don’t know. I enjoy the drama of sports. I think the basic ingredients of any good drama have to do with relatively ordinary people being faced with extraordinary circumstances. How do characters act when everything goes wrong? How do they deal with stress, humiliation, injury, death, suffering, separation, and war? I see that in sports. I see people playing hurt, or playing hard even if they know they have no chance to win. Do you watch soccer?
Well, there’s a real character whom I loathe but find entertaining — José Mourinho, the coach of Chelsea. I like Real Madrid, and when Mourinho coached them, he basically destroyed the team psychologically. The damage he did to the fan base and the whole structure of the club will last for a while. He was playing a match two days ago in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain. It was the return match, and Chelsea had the advantage of an away goal in their first match, and it was unlikely that things were going to go well for Paris. Then partway through the first half, Paris unfairly had a player thrown out. So they were playing 10 against 11. Chelsea should have creamed them. But it ended up being an epic 120 minutes, with comeback after comeback, and even though Paris was playing with a numerical disadvantage, they kept playing really beautiful, pure football, and Chelsea was just playing not to lose. In the last minutes of regulation time, Paris tied it up, and in the last minutes of extra time, they tied it again. Since they had two away goals compared to the one away goal Chelsea had, Paris went through. It was great, dramatic. It was almost like watching a movie.
Eric Benson (@elbenson) is a journalist living in Austin. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Texas Monthly, and the Argentina Independent.